Text size

The soldier with the piercing in her upper lip was sleeping on the seat across from us. A woman walked by and stopped next to her, in the half-empty car. "Some nerve you have! Aren't you ashamed to take up two seats? What some people won't do these days, I tell you," she berated the soldier and then alighted from the train. "What was that?," the soldier said, blinking. "It's too bad, I was sleeping really well."

It was 1:34 P.M., on the train from Tel Aviv to Nahariya. "I'm a transplant recipient," the soldier's mother, who was sitting next to me, introduced herself. Only later on did she tell me her name, Marisia. The two women were taking the all-too-familiar route home: From Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva to Acre, via the Tel Aviv Central Station. From Acre they will make their way home to Carmiel. The Israel Railways development plan calls for an Acre-Carmiel line to be in operation by 2010.

It's been three years since Marisia received a new lung. She'll have to keep traveling the Beilinson-Carmiel route for the rest of her life, she says. If interesting people are sitting next to her, she'll talk with them. If not, she keeps quiet. "There are some nosy ones, too," says her daughter.

The view from the window as we approach Acre: banana groves, yellow flowers, tall mounds of eclectic collections of junk. "The scenery doesn't interest me, this is the landscape I live in, I've got enough scenery," Marisia says. They got off at their station, we continued on to Nahariya, the terminus. In the distant past, the train continued into Lebanon, but today the tracks end in Nahariya, the northernmost station.

As we left the train, we were ambushed by a merciless white light, one of the trademarks of train travel, the one that denotes the end of the journey, the arrival, the transition from inside to outside. The sunglasses! We returned to the emptied car to search for them but to no avail. We went down to the platform and went up to the station manager to ask when the train to Binyamina leaves. He pointed at it. It was pulling out of the station and moving away. The next one would leave in another hour and fifteen minutes.

Right time

In recent years, the train cars of the Israel Railways have begun to fill up. According to company figures, in 1997, the trains carried 5.5 million passengers; by 2002, that number had climbed to 17.5 million, and in 2005 it was up to nearly 27 million. The forecast for 2010 is for 65 million passengers.

This vision is supposed to be realized thanks to an unprecedented development plan that includes infrastructure spending, the introduction of new lines and stations and the upgrading of existing lines. Some projects have already been completed; others are still in the planning or construction stages. With a five-year development budget that was recently increased from NIS 20 billion to over NIS 25 billion, the upgraded railroad is supposed to bring the periphery of the country closer to the center, reduce traffic accidents and benefit the environment and life in general. This particular moment - just after we've quit belittling the national train service and just before we won't be able to live without it - is the right time, journalistically speaking, to ride the rails and take a good look at what's going on here.

Punctual but elusive

I informed a friend in Binyamina that we'd be two hours late, and I did so without regret; Nahariya is home to the world's best train station. Even the complete facelift it got in 2001 has not stopped it from looking like a spruced-up warehouse - exactly how a train station should look.

The first in the strip of businesses that parallels the tracks is Hamifgash Shel Marwan, featuring a big taboun oven, warm pitas, and excellent labaneh yogurt cheese and hummus.

At Tahanat Ruah ("Windmill"), the small used bookshop next door, we met Ma'ayan Shalom. "There's a big community of former SLA people here," she says, referring to members of the South Lebanon Army who fled to Israel when Israeli forces withdrew from Lebanon in 2000. "They're great, even though this country screwed them over." She is 26, six months pregnant and lives in the nearby community of Klil. You can find a little bit of everything in her shop: a clown on a seesaw hanging from the ceiling, the works of Bertolt Brecht, New Age literature and even a record of the 1979 Eurovision song contest entries, including the winning song, "Hallelujah."

A young woman comes in, purchases a copy of Sonya Friedman's "Men are Just Desserts," and heads home to Kibbutz Kabri. Outside were two security guards, a young woman named Liat and a young man who tells us people call him Benny Sela [an infamous serial rapist who escaped from police custody last September and was captured two weeks later in the north.] A bit of local humor, apparently. They were both chewing long, thick gummy candies that looked more like snakes than worms. Hers was green outside and pink inside. She offered a bite. A watermelon-flavored snake.

It's quiet at the station in the middle of the week. Sundays and Thursdays are the busy days. Liat prefers the quiet. "I'm the opposite," says Sela. He has an impressive-looking pistol. He points to the station entrance and tells us that a Katyusha rocket fell there.

The coffee machine at the station offers a variety of flavors, such as Swiss chocolate, sahlab, French hazelnut: different names for the same flavor. But who needs them when Marwan is making sweet tea and giving it out to everyone. The train pulls in, we bid everyone goodbye and head to the platform.

"It's moving!," the photographer shouted. The train really was moving. "Do something!," we cried out to the manager. He ran toward the platform and radioed the engineer to stop the train but it kept moving. A strange creature, this Israel Railways. Punctual but elusive. One minute the train's here. The next minute it's gone. The next train leaves in another 45 minutes, but it doesn't stop in Binyamina, the manager informs us. I called my friend to cancel.

When the third train arrived, we were waiting, on the alert. It pulled in. I slid my ticket through the turnstile slot. It spit it back out. I tried again. Still no luck. Israel Railways was spitting in my face. "Call the manager," I asked the photographer, and he summoned him. The manager let me through a small gate and punched the ticket himself. The manager was good to us. We got on the train and waved goodbye.

Haifa, Haifa!

So, no Binyamina. We felt lost. It was a double-decker train and we went to the top. We passed by plowed, bare, brown fields. The man across from me was hard at work on a Sudoku puzzle. "You like Sudoku?," I tried as an opening gambit. "I'm addicted to Sudoku, it keeps my mind sharp," replied the retired gentleman from Nahariya, who was going to Haifa to visit his brother at Rambam Medical Center. "There's no easy solution, but there is a single, unequivocal solution. There is no other solution. In life there is no single solution." He judges life by the height of the treetops. "Where the trees are taller than the houses, you'll find good quality of life," he says.

Are your trees taller than your house?

"Yes."

But once they were small.

"True."

Outside, on the eastern side of the tracks, the view changed to heaps of garbage and scrap metal, the backyard of Israeli industry. "The view on this side isn't nice. It's better on the other side," the man says. "Maybe we ought to move to the pretty side?," I suggest. "If I'm solving a Sudoku it doesn't matter," he says.

He gets off at Haifa's Bat Galim station, and so do we. Outside the station is a playground surrounded by a housing project. "This is where I grew up," the man says. "During the [British] Mandate this was an upscale area. There used to be a pool here and the only casino in the country, a nice casino, not like the one in Jericho." He stood across from the hospital, muttered, "Sad, sad," and walked off.

We returned to the station, checked the timetable and decided to travel to Ben-Gurion International Airport. There was a half-hour wait. The terribly roomy station is built out of tall, exposed concrete that can make you feel as if you've suddenly shrunk. There's a certain architectural sophistication here with this concrete. You get the feeling that someone really put some thought into it. Or not. As the day is about to turn to night, the train tracks turn the color of an unseen orange sun. On the roof, flocks of swallows play tag in perfect circles.

Everyone seemed to be clutching a copy of Yisraeli. No one was reading the newspaper, but still, you don't turn down a freebie. "Passover at Neophan," proclaimed the ad on the back page. "If we'd only bought a KitchenAid mixer,

Dayenu

and also received a blender for just NIS 199,

Dayenu

and a meat grinder, too

Dayenu..."

When the war ends

With us in the train car was Raya from Kfar Vradim. She doesn't like Kfar Vradim and isn't that crazy about Israel Railways either, for that matter. She's on her way to Jerusalem to give a lecture about literature, but she'll get off at the Tel Aviv Central Station and catch a bus, because if she takes the train all the way to Jerusalem she'll never get there.

The trains in Israel have improved, she admits, "but you can't even compare it to the trains abroad. First, there's the speed. In other countries, the trains are much faster. Second, there's the punctuality. Abroad, they're incredibly punctual. And third, what about having a dining car? It's a great thing. Here they come by with sandwiches and coffee that cost a fortune. It's utterly scandalous. Outright extortion."

But Raya isn't one to give in to extortion. She brought along a thermos her daughter filled with a tea brew consisting of Earl Grey, medicinal geranium and medicinal sage. "I brew it myself. That's the solution." She also has a sandwich. "I won't buy anything from them. On principle."

Just before alighting Raya warned us of another scandal - the lack of an escalator at the airport station. "It's an injustice. I complained, and they promised they'd fix it." She urges us to check whether Israel Railways has kept its promise.

Papi was lucky. Two minutes after Raya got off the train, he burst into the compartment in a flurry with a big box full of pretzels. "The dream has come true, don't be shy, hot pretzels here, give 'em a try!," he called out. We bought one with za'atar [hyssop spice mixture] and Papi disappeared into the next car.

Now we were all alone in the carriage. A security guard walked down the aisle. Where is everyone? "They're all flying abroad," he answered. "I'd like to go, too. When the war ends."

The train pulled into the last station, the airport. Hard to say whether this station is out of the future or out of ancient Rome. Corinthian columns up to the ceiling strewn with red, heart-shaped balloons, and an escalator alongside a wall of Jerusalem stone [limestone]. Maybe it's actually the Third Temple.

Inside the airport, we found a group of 400 Nigerian pilgrims, all in identical yellow and brown African dress, with matching headscarves. Some were still going through check-in. Others were rushing off to the Michal Negrin and James Richardson duty-free stores. "It was a spiritual journey," the priest leading the group told us. "We visited all the holy places. It made the Bible more real for us. We climbed Mount Sinai at two in the morning. It was hard but we survived thanks to God."

Hong Kong 20:05. Paris 20:35. Cairo 21:10. The flight schedule is packed. On our map, things looked different. Lod, Rehovot, Jerusalem. Where should we stop for the night? You can't stop a journey in the middle, even if it means going back to the starting point in Tel Aviv.

The train stopped at Azrieli Center in Tel Aviv, and we decided to head for the boardwalk. At the Marina Hotel, a clerk named Sharon checked us in. He said he had two rooms with a partial view of the sea, and there was also a covered pool on the roof. In the lobby, we picked up brochures inviting hotel guests to visit Mini Israel. All of Israel in one fell swoop. "See it all, small!," the ad beckoned. But shortcuts are not for us.

The Marina Hotel is on top of the indoor shopping center of Atarim Square, and the decor seems frozen in the 1970s. Through the window we could glimpse at the sea and the square. Britons had already started arriving in the city, ahead of the big soccer game. One of them peed on the ruins of the Colosseum club.

Father figures

The morning news on the radio: The police have recommended that Israel Railways CEO Ofer Linczewski be charged with causing death by negligence in the wake of the accident at Beit Yehoshua last summer. But Beit Shemesh is out of the danger zone. Today's itinerary is as follows: Tel Aviv-Beit Shemesh-Jerusalem Biblical Zoo--Beit Shemesh-Kiryat Gat-Be'er Sheva and, for dessert, Dimona. The train began climbing the hills, little olive trees were visible out the window.

The travel time from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is almost an hour and a half, if you're lucky. The line is old and impractical. In 2001, it was decided to build a fast train line from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, via the airport, with an extension to Modi'in, that would reduce the trip from Tel Aviv to the capital to just 28 minutes. The estimated cost of the project is NIS 3.8 billion. In the meantime, there have been delays and various struggles and the budget is now expected to climb as high as NIS 7 billion. Meanwhile, taxpayers continue to take the bus instead.

In addition to the complicated, long-term plan, a decision was made to upgrade the old line and restore it to operation. In 2005, after renovations that overshot the budget and a seven-year hiatus, the train again began plying its convoluted route. One part of the upgrade was the rebuilding of the Beit Shemesh station.

The station is a small, square structure faced with Jerusalem stone that attempts to convey an air of the British Mandate. We had a one-hour delay in Beit Shemesh. In order to leave and return and still be able to use the ticket we'd purchased to go as far as the Tisch Family Zoological Gardens in Jerusalem - the Biblical Zoo - we had to get permission from the station manager. He opened the little gate and told us to call him when we came back. Don't be late, he said as he let us go. In station after station, the station manager emerges as a key figure in the story. They care about their passengers.

The manager told us that it was a bit far to the city itself, but that the shopping center next to the station has "an Aroma and Fox and everything." We go into Optica Halperin to buy a pair of sunglasses to replace the ones I left on the first train to Nahariya. At the supermarket, the stampede of holiday shoppers was just getting into swing. Outside McDonald's a soldier holding a vanilla ice cream cone offered another soldier a lick and then shoved the cone in his face. They got into a fistfight. When you travel by car, you miss scenes like that.

We showed up at the manager's office nine minutes ahead of time and he let us in. The smiling cow on the Elite poster says "Wake me up when we get to Binyamina." We ran to the second platform and got there a second before the train pulled out. It, too, was decorated with a smiling cow, but this one was asking: "How long until we get to Malha?"

Osher is quiet. The stick-thin little boy with the kippah and curly sidelocks is sitting on the floor of the compartment counting train tickets. The train crawled slowly through the Jerusalem hills, like in one of those period movies that never seem to get anywhere. In one compartment was a group of religious boys, ages 10-12, returning from a field trip. "They are learning about public transportation - planes, ships, trains," the teacher explained. They're not going to be taking off or sailing anywhere as part of this course, but at least they got to ride the train from the Malha Mall to Beit Shemesh and back.

I asked Osher how many tickets he had. "95," he told me. I found him another one, 96, and he pulled out a box of chewing gum cigarettes and gave me one. "You like these tickets?," I asked him. "Yes." Why? Osher didn't have an answer. "Osher is quiet. He has a collection. After he counts them, he looks at them all," explained another student named Yaakov. Does he collect tickets, too? "I don't like train tickets," says Yaakov. "I collect lighters."

A chubby boy named Avraham goes up to the teacher. "When do we get to Eretz Yisrael?," he asks. "At 2:10," she answers, and then explains to us that by "Eretz Yisrael," he means Jerusalem.

The trip went on and on. Yaakov declared that there were no really good animals at the Biblical Zoo. The only animal he likes is his bulldog, named Bulldog. Tzahi sat across from him. They passed the time gossiping.

At the Biblical Zoo station, there was nothing, only Kobi, the security guard, stretched out on a bench on the deserted platform. "How's the zoo?," I asked. "I'm crazy about it, I think about it all the time," he replied, adding that he hadn't been there since he was five. At the station there's no security to pass through or any open ticket window and you don't need to punch your ticket. Just say goodbye to Kobi and be on your way.

At the zoo there are lots of kids, and in the lake by the entrance, lots of swans. On an island in the center of the lake, a bunch of black Siamang monkeys cavorted. They are known to leap as much as 12 meters from branch to branch in the tropical forests, but these animals were marooned in this small space in the holy and dry air.

The little train that circles the zoo is even less punctual than Israel Railways. The ultra-Orthodox man sitting in front of us has plenty of time to recite the prayer for safe travel. When the train starts to move, it passes two Iranian cheetahs who are rubbing against each other. We knew they were Iranian because the guide said so over the loudspeaker. From there it's on to the bears, and then to the lions. The guide informs us that the King of the Beasts appears in the Bible no less than 123 times. The photographer says he's heard that in the zoo there's a lion with just three legs. Ava, a zoo worker, confirms this, but says the lion is inside and that visitors cannot see him now.

The zoo train makes its way past the animals, from wrinkled elephants to birds of prey, and then to the last stop, Flamingo Pond. When we returned to the Israel Railways station, we found Kobi in the same position in which we'd left him. Apparently, the train - the last train to Beit Shemesh, which was the only way to continue southward from Jerusalem, was due in two minutes. "Stupid train," hissed Kobi.

Danger, camels

At 15:17 a small, engine-less train ["kronoa"] arrived. It was empty, apart from a security guard from Beit Shemesh named Sali (Salman), the conductor and the driver. We all could have made the trip in a Fiat Punto. Sali cursed Beit Shemesh and was dreaming the whole time about Miami. "America of silver and Jerusalem of gold," he said, waxing poetic. The conductor sold us tickets (cash only) to Dimona, and outlined the route for us.

We sat down next to the open cockpit. The door is broken, Yehiel, the taciturn driver explained. I pointed to a little stream flowing alongside the tracks. "It's all acid and pee," said Sali. "And pee is the best thing in there," said Kobi. "If you swim in there you'll grow a third ear."

We were back in Beit Shemesh. The manager was waiting for us and said our train would leave in a little under an hour. The conductor told him we wanted to go on to Dimona. The manager looked worried. He took us into his office for a talk. The room was shrouded in thick smoke. The employees come in, light up, make themselves coffee. The manager has a microphone, and every so often he makes an announcement.

The manager began calculating - Beit Shemesh-Lod, Lod-Kiryat Gat, Kiryat Gat-Be'er Sheva, Be'er Sheva-Dimona - and then told us that in the best case scenario we would arrive in Dimona at 8 P.M., and the last train from Dimona to Tel Aviv leaves at seven. IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Asheknazi fixed us with a scornful look from the poster on the wall. We'd failed in our mission.

We walked back up to the shopping center. The ice cream scuffle had ended, the holiday shopping continued unabated. The clock showed five. From here, the only place we could go to by train was Lod.

On the way to Lod, it's a good idea to hold on tight. Just a year ago, right near the city, a train collided with a camel. The further south you travel on the train, the greater the chance of crashing into a camel. In recent years, in tandem with the increase in train lines to the south, there has been a worrisome rise in the number of camels and people who have died this way. The police tried attaching reflectors to the camels. No camel is visible from the window now. Only a darkening pink sky, sheep and cows, train tracks and a lone man walking between them.

The old Lod station is considered important. Many trains go there for maintenance, cleaning and parking. Experienced train travelers that we are, we now know the drill. We go to the station manager's office, introduce ourselves and ask permission to leave the station for a walk around town. He lets us out through the special gate.

Outside we see a long line of garages for maintaining locomotive engines and carriages. We wanted a beer, to celebrate the end of the journey and to wash away the taste of defeat. Across from the station is a Mifal Hapayis lottery kiosk surrounded by plastic chairs. We'd used all our cash for the tickets to Dimona. I asked the kiosk owner if there was an ATM around. "Sure," he said, directing us to a mall that wasn't yet visible on the horizon.

All around are puddles, wire fences, rusty shacks and lots and lots of train tracks. Right now Lod is like Martha's Vineyard, the rustic and exclusive island off Massachusetts where Moshe Herzog, the hero of the Saul Bellow novel, arrives at the end of the day. He got on the train in the morning, trying to escape the demons in the big city and the demons in his head. When he arrives, he looks around. It's not that the place wasn't pretty, writes Bellow, but from the first moment he realized he'd made a mistake. "Turn around, Moshe, and catch the next ferry back. All you needed was a train ride. It has turned the trick." W